Sunday, June 6, 2010

How to Be a Writer

This is the question for many unpublished authors, and there is no one answer. Obviously a lot hinges on one's native talent, and a little luck.

But between novelists, playwrights and philosophers, there are common skills. I've been reading Hemingway - for pleasure, and for my next book - and he exemplified at least one of these skills: receptivity.

Hemingway might've been an overbearing, deceitful prat at times. But the man listened, watched, and felt - he was alive to his surroundings, until the end (when madness robbed him of his gifts).

Here's a little passage from his Esquire piece, 'Monologue to the Maestro'. He is 'Your Correspondent'. He's talking to his ship's night-watchman, Maestro, or Mice for short. Maestro arrived in Key West from upper Minnesota to learn from the master. Here's a snippet of the master's reply.
Y.C.: Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don't be thinking what you're going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you're in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practise. And always think of other people.
Mice: Do you think I will be a writer?
Y.C.: How the hell should I know? Maybe you have no talent. Maybe you can't feel for other people. You've got some good stories if you can write them.
Mice: How can I tell?
Y.C.: Write. If you work at it five years and you find you're no good you can just as well shoot yourself then as now.
Mice: I wouldn't shoot myself.
Y.C.: Come around then and I'll shoot you.
Mice: Thanks.
As well as being funny, this is true. Art thrives on experience: the two and fro of man and world, creature and environment. The artist - philosopher, novelist, playwright - must be keenly, acutely attuned to this play of people, landscape, and their relations. The artist has to be brimming with life; with all the details and nuance that make up our daily dealings. And the artist must watch how they grow, swell, loosen and tighten, decay and die; how the world moves, inside and out.

Importantly, this has nothing to do with old age - it has more to do with character than calendar years. Ernest Hemingway was my age when he wrote this, having already given us some of the finest short stories in English, and A Farewell to Arms.

We hear a great deal about Hemingway the boxer, fisherman and soldier - and rightly so. But his fiction flourished because these experiences were sensitively, patiently absorbed - and then digested. It's not only the fists and trigger finger that made the writer. It's the eyes, the guts, the skin, and all they take in.


Gondal-girl said...

bravo. beautifully put.

Peter Fyfe said...

Lovely! I like to think of the creative eye as seeing with compassion, not so-called objectively, but in a manner that suffers with (passion + com) what is sees, and is in some way changed by it. This makes it easier to write about what you saw because it’s now part of you and you’re part of it. :)

Damon Young said...

I agree that empathy is required. Though I suspect a certain brutality is also necessary - and if not brutality, then a strange combination of receptivity and stoicism: being strong enough to look evil or agony in the face, and not be utterly crushed by it.

colewardell said...

I quite agree-- whether or not I enjoy all these writers, I can appreciate that the same writerly watchfulness informs Hemingway and Morrison both, or John Updike and Flannery O'Connor.

I also appreciate the emphasis on listening in the section you quoted, and I think it's relevant to Peter Fyfe's comment about compassion. I find this especially interesting in relation to my work with white anti-racist ally training. One of the first things that we talk about is the importance of (what I call) "learning to shut up and listen" --especially for white people, who in the United States have been raised not to listen to the voices of people of color. It is the act of listening, watching, of validating another person's existence, that opens doors for compassion.

On another note, I read an interesting article last year about compassion and empathy. Apparently neuroscientists found that you use the same part of your brain to develop compassion as you do when you learn an instrument or similar skill. So compassion is a learned thing, a skill-- which, I think, speaks to a certain discipline that writers use in the process of writing.

Damon Young said...

Cole, very interesting - thank you.

I imagine that the non-communication between ethnicities is just a more intense version of that between everyone else. If I look at my own neighbourhood, there are plenty of folks - of the same ethnicity, class, status, gender - who simply do not listen to one another. But, yes, the first thing must be learning how to shut up and listen, and its complement: learning how to express what you're thinking, feeling.

On the neurophysiology stuff, I'm torn on this sort of evidence. I respect and often seek out scientific explanations. But I'm also wary of these 'brain part x correlates to thinking/feeling/perceiving Y' conclusions. They often tell us little about the meaning of what's going on in the mind - only what part of the brain is active when this meaning arises.

Can you post a link to the research, Cole?

Peter Fyfe said...

I wonder if compassion is a "learned" skill or an "unveiled" one that was extant but covered by cultural baggage? Occidental prejudice would say the former, but the writerly bits of my experience neurophysiology and other sciences seem to ignore or reduce would favour the latter. :)

Damon Young said...

I remember some research suggesting that infants' brains 'mirror' those of their carers - that this is the basis of later empathy: a biological, 'hard-wired' feeling-with.

But this isn't the same as compassion, of course: one can be feeling with someone (i.e. empathetic), but simply be equally miserable, angry and rude - one needn't be caring or helpful. What we think of as compassion is, I suspect, a combination of empathy, goodwill and learned assistance.